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… or, what inclusion means to me (and why I don’t like saying it)
Finding a definitive, agreed meaning for the term ‘inclusion’, in the educational sense of the word, has proven impossible. So, from various things I have read, experienced, overheard and daydreamed about, this is my own definition (disclaimer; stolen and cannibalised from various sources):
Inclusion is the enterprise of ensuring equal quality of education and school experience for every child. It is not the enterprise of putting all of the children into the same building.
Pretty concise. But the issue of inclusion isn’t concise. This two sentence sound-bite exists for one reason and one reason only; I have learnt (the hard way) that the majority of people who make the mistake of saying ‘inclusion’ to me don’t want to hear my long version. Though, usually, they get to hear it anyway. To me, inclusion is an abstract concept and social construct brought about by the us/them, or able/disabled people, dichotomy that I don’t think exists. But, it is what is happening, and so it is the system I have to operate within and the language I have to use. To me, having an ‘inclusion’ department is like having a ‘not racist’ department; shouldn’t it go without saying that all children within the school are included? We have created a system in which we feel we have to declare that all of the children in the school are having their needs met and, in most cases, I don’t even think it’s true; what most schools call inclusion is actually a form of internal segregation.
To me, having an ‘inclusion’ department is like having a ‘not racist’ department; shouldn’t it go without saying that all children within the school are included?
I don’t think the current paradigm constitutes or facilitates true inclusion, but I know what I think it will look like when we do achieve it. So, here it is (the medium version):
Obviously, right? Children go to school to learn and gain the qualifications that will enable them to go on and be successful adults. In education, it is receiving an education that is paramount. So, for me, the be-all-and-end-all of educational equality is that all students receive the same quality – high quality – education as each other. That means fair access to qualified, subject specialist teachers, quality resources, specialist environments and relevant experiences. In order to gain an equal quality education as their peers, our lowest ability and vulnerable learners will need INCREASED access to these things – not less – and many aspects of the currently prevailing system not only prevent this but actively counter it. Each child should be given maximum opportunity to learn, even if this means going above and beyond the standard offer.
Each child should be given maximum opportunity to learn, even if this means going above and beyond the standard offer.
Children go to school to learn maths, English, science and so on but, simultaneously, they are also learning something else. Something equally (some might say, more…) important. A second layer of learning, running parallel to and interweaving with their timetabled lessons, and that’s concerned with their developing independence and how they work in a team; how they need to conform but, also, when they should rebel and stand up for what they believe in; it’s about their sense of self, self-worth, value, purpose and place. In short, they’re learning how to be themselves and how they fit into the community. Whatever we do with our school children needs to prepare them for their life as an adult… is having theiraccess to activities facilitated by a 1:1 adult replicating how their life will be when they leave? Is that teaching assistant going to be there in the supermarket? The train station? The job interview??? No; they need to be able to do it themselves. More importantly, what does this buffering of access to lessons/teachers, withdrawal from the timetable and being educated by non-specialists and in non-specialist areas tell a child about their place in society? That they’re equally valid, fully fledged members of the community as their peers? That they should have high expectations of themselves and their future? We currently perpetuate a system where school life does not replicate or naturally lead into adult life for our low ability and vulnerable learners and it is this, in my opinion, that has resulted in only 50% of working age adults with disabilities, and 6.6% of working age adults with learning disabilities, being in employment. Segregating low ability and vulnerable learners from their peers is killing their opportunities, even if it is with kindness and good intentions. The internal-segregation-as-inclusion paradigm has enabled us to develop systems that work for the majority and require separate systems for students with additional needs, but this perpetuates a society where those with disabilities sit just outside of where the opportunities are. If your whole school systems don’t work for the least able, they don’t work; everyone means everyone, and anything else simply isn’t equality.
If your whole school systems don’t work for the least able, they don’t work; everyone means everyone, and anything else simply isn’t equality.
Schools are where the seeds of tomorrow’s society are sown. Our students’ educational outcomes (according to both of the criteria above) will affect the economy, politics, environment and issues of social justice of tomorrow. To paraphrase (the super amazing) Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, ‘creativity occurs at the borders’; progress and development is born out of diversity and difference (e.g., you’re only going to get a lot of different configurations of potato out of a basket of 10 potatoes; just imagine how much more you could create and innovate out of a basket containing 10 different items of food!). I’ve managed to get three analogies into this section alone so far, but my point is this; schools should be diverse communities. I would hate for my stance against inclusion as an ‘under-one-roof’ provision to be misunderstood; I firmly believe that the majority of children should be receiving their equal quality of education in their local or otherwise chosen ‘mainstream’ school, and that it is the responsibility of – and about time – schools changed their attitude towards accommodating a range of abilities and needs. If a school is designed – and I mean the physical structure/environment, the curriculum and staffing model, the superstructures (assessment, behaviour policy, teaching and learning… everything that keeps a school ticking over) – with all in mind… ALL in mind… then they should be able to cater for a diverse range of abilities and needs. However, ensuring equal quality of education (academic and experiential) always, always, always takes priority. And, on that basis, if a child would receive a greater quality education in another setting, for whatever reason, then they should go there.
If a school is designed with ALL in mind, it should be able to cater for a diverse range of abilities and needs.
Having mainstream and special schools isn’t really in keeping with my wider philosophy denouncing the existence of a dichotomous relationship between able and disabled people… so, in an equal and fair education system, that model would have to go. And I’m not keen on the term ‘special’ in relation to schools for students with more complex, profound or challenging needs. To me, it’s patronising and pejorative. Depending on my mood, either all of the children are special, or none of them are; it really depends on the kind of day I’ve had.
Let me propose an alternative approach to education across an authority. I would like to see a system whereby each area has a number of smaller secondary schools, each with its own distinct identity and specialism; a USP, if you like. Some schools would look, naturally, more like a mainstream school and others more like a special school, of course… but that isn’t the point. The point is that parents, educators and other professionals need choice – real choice – where none of the available options are schools that are failing, none have a stigma attached, and none are considered ‘uninclusive’ due to some aspect of their entity or identity. Inclusion would look different in each of those settings – it is possible to be both niche and inclusive! – and equal quality of education and experience would be achieved across the range of settings. For example, what if the schools in your area looked like this:
No mainstream schools and special schools, just a diverse range of little, unique and – most importantly – really, really good schools, all ‘special’ in their own way. Where would you want to send a child with high functioning autism? A child that loves the outdoors? Moderate learning difficulties? Complex and multiple learning needs? A child that is a gifted dancer? No identified needs but who is really shy? No identified learning needs but a wheelchair user? Having more, smaller schools enables greater diversity and choice, but it also facilitates equality and inclusion in other ways. In my opinion, in a smaller school where ‘everyone knows everyone’ the children are safer (from a safeguarding perspective), have a greater sense of belonging and being noticed, feeling that they’re making a contribution and less likely to ‘slip through the net’ or for an issue to go unnoticed. The imaginary schools in the table add up to 2500 students; there are secondary schools of that size in existence. How would the experience of a student – any student – differ between being in one of the schools in the table and being in a single 2500 on roll school? Feeling safe, having a sense of belonging, making a contribution and having your needs met isn’t an SEN-D issue; it’s an all children issue.
Now, imagine if all those schools were within walking distance of one another… or, even better, they formed a learning campus on a single site. What if your autistic or chronically shy child could attend a small provision with appropriate life skills courses but spend a couple of days a week learning classic civilisations and advanced maths, in a specialist setting, too? What if your academically gifted child attended a very academically focussed school but did PE/drama/art whatever in a class that was shared between that school and one with a more sensory focus? What if the pool, theatre, learning commons et cetera were centrally based for all to access? Competition between schools is a mechanism for driving up standards; we don’t really want to be ‘better’ than all the other local schools, do we? I want the students at my school to be amazing, and I want the students at the school around the corner to be amazing. I want each student to receive the academic education that is right for them; I want them to feel like a fully included member of their community; and I want them to meet a whole load of different people, all of whom they see as fully included members of the community too. Imagine what society could look like in the future if we achieve this!?
So, what does inclusion mean to me? It means three things – equal quality of education and experience; self discovery and preparedness for adulthood; and a feeling of belonging and being valued. Can this be achieved as an under-one-roof provision? I wouldn’t want it to be; every child deserves to be educated in a setting where their experience suits their personality, and the people they bump into on the corridors know who they are. Even greater tailoring of a students experience of education, greater diversity and, therefore, greater tolerance and acceptance, can be achieved through collaboration between settings and, ultimately, it is this that is going to enable each child to achieve those three key elements above. And, if every child is in the school that is right for them, having truly inclusive systems within each individual setting should be a breeze.
Inclusion to me means three things – equal quality of education and experience; self discovery and preparedness for adulthood; and a feeling of belonging and being valued.
[This article was originally published on INCO14]
Nicole Dempsey is the Individual Needs Co-ordinator (INCo) at Dixons Trinity Academy and Dixons Music Primary; two new schools opened under the government’s free school mechanism in Bradford, United Kingdom. Through her role as INCo she aims to develop them as truly inclusive schools where all students, including those with disabilities, receive the highest quality education without any kind of segregation of provision or resources. Nicole also works for several local charities who work to ensure that children and young people with disabilities have access to leisure activities in their local community and beyond. This can be anything from an afternoon at the cinema to abseiling off a viaduct and is a regular reminder that the only limitations are the ones we set ourselves.